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Tiger Talk: Fourth doesn't fit for DH Victor Martinez

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Hello again, friends. (Sorry, this time of year, I can't help but talk in Jim Nantz-ese.)

The Tigers are off to a grand start, at 8-4, but more importantly, they've sent a message to the Cleveland Indians that this isn't 2016. It took the Tigers until August 2016 to finally get a win against the Indians, but they got off to a much better start over the weekend, taking the first series between the American League Central rivals.

It might be time for the Tigers to move designated hitter Victor Martinez down in the batting order.

That gives the Tigers victories in three of their first four series, and the other one was a split in Chicago.

Their nine-game road trip continues this week in Tampa, and over the weekend in Minnesota.

Let's get to the questions.

Good question, Jason. So good, in fact, it's essentially the topic of 80 percent of my Twitter questions this week.

For starters, let's recognize how fortunate the Tigers are to be off to the hot start, despite J.D. Martinez's absence, not to mention the lack of production from some other big-time pieces in the lineup, like Justin Upton, Victor Martinez and, until recently, Miguel Cabrera.

There's no definitive word yet on when J.D. Martinez will return from the foot injury, though he is starting to take some limited batting practice, and will take batting practice with the Tigers during their three-game series against the Rays this week.

The best bet, given he'll need multiple rehab games before he thinks of joining Detroit, is he's out at least until early May.

When he does return, manager Brad Ausmus will have some decisions to make with the lineup. I wouldn't put J.D. Martinez in the No. 2 slot. I like the look of the top three in the lineup, with Ian Kinsler, Nick Castellnos and Cabrera. J.D. Martinez should take over the cleanup spot when he's back, but then again, I've long thought he should be the cleanup man, and Ausmus has long disagreed.

Victor Martinez can't continue to bat fourth. Forget the fact he's not hitting; I suspect he will start hitting before too long; I don't think this is the end for the Tigers' designated hitter. But he can't run worth a lick. He has to lead the world in 400-foot singles over the last three years. And that just clogs things up in the middle. If he continues to bat fourth, he'll continue to cost the Tigers runs, and J.D. Martinez, Upton and James McCann RBI opportunities.

As stated last week, my ideal lineup:

1. Ian Kinsler

2. Nicholas Alexander Castellanos

3. Miguel Cabrera

4. J.D. Martinez

5. Justin Upton

6. Victor Martinez

7. James McCann

8. JaCoby Jones

9. Jose Iglesias

And, frankly, I would have no problem with Victor Martinez moving down one more slot, behind McCann.

David, I would hope to see Jones starting more games, and I suspect it won't be long before he's the absolute regular, against both right-handed and left-handed pitching.

I get what the Tigers are doing right now, though.

While Jones is an absolute freak athletically, he's still raw — and a prospect, one who wasn't even projected to make the Opening Day roster, and might not have if J.D. Martinez hadn't gotten injured.

He's made great strides at the plate, particularly with discipline and pitch recognition, the result of some serious work in fall ball. Jones already this season has turned multiple 0-2 counts into 3-2 counts, many of those at-bats resulting in walks and clutch hits.

There also have been many at-bats where he looks like the raw rookie he is.

So Ausmus decided to give Andrew Romine some more work in center field over the past week, partly becomes of Jones' in-progress development and partly because of Romine's hot start at the plate. Now that Romine has cooled, though, I wouldn't be surprised to see Jones getting more and more starts against right-handed pitching. The Tigers have a pretty loaded lineup, which will be evident when the big boys start hitting, so Jones, as Ausmus conceded last week, doesn't have to be an all-world bat this year. They do need his impressive defense in center field, though.

In other words, the Tigers will live with the ups and downs at the plate, in order to majorly upgrade their defense.

Tigers pitcher Joe Jimenez appeared in one game before he was returned to Triple-A Toledo.

I hear ya, Mike.

The Tigers darn near broke the Internet last week when, moments after Joe Jimenez made his major-league debut and in impressive fashion, they sent him right back down to Toledo — supposedly, to add a long man to the bullpen for the Indians series.

By sending Jimenez down, it limits his service time, which, down the road, could save the Tigers some cash when they get an extra year of club control out of him before he hits the arbitration circuit.

I get that. That's been done in baseball plenty, especially recently, as salaries have skyrocketed. The most famous example is when the Cubs broke camp without obviously ready Kris Bryant in 2015. They eventually changed their mind, quickly promoted him, he won rookie of the year and the Cubs made it all the way to the National League Championship Series. The next year, Bryant was National League MVP, and the Cubs won the World Series.

I've heard people mention Bryant's name in the same sentence with Jimenez. There's no comparison — mainly, because an extra year of club control for a position player like Bryant is worth exponentially more than an extra year for a reliever, especially one who's not a closer.

Also, the Tigers will look awfully foolish if they bury Jimenez in Toledo and end up missing the playoffs by, say, a game or two. What's more valuable — postseason gate or an extra year of club control for a reliever? The answer is obvious.

That's why Jimenez won't be in Toledo long, not with the state the Tigers' bullpen is in. Jimenez should be up before month's end, and for good. He won't fix all that ails the Tigers, and he'll have his rocky outings, too, but you can't convince me he's not one of the top seven relief arms in the organization.

Fun fact. Karl used to work at The Detroit News. But for some strange reason, he left the booming business of newspapers. What a weirdo.

Anywho, fine question, though.

Obviously, the Tigers' bullpen options aren't all that plentiful, or we wouldn't be having this conversation. Again.

Blaine Hardy and Joe Jimenez are the best options in the minor leagues, of course, and should be back with the Tigers pronto — Hardy likely this week, and Jimenez shortly after, following their mandatory 10-day stays in Toledo following a demotion.

After that, things get awfully hairy.

Bruce Rondon, almost certainly, remains somewhere in the Tigers' internal pecking order, but until this guy gets serious about his job — starting with an improved attitude and waist line — I'm not holding out much hope here. Keep an eye on Daniel Stumpf, the Rule 5 guy plucked from the Royals. There's also Victor Alcantara, acquired from the Angels for Cameron Maybin. He's off to a pretty good start at Double-A Erie. In a far-fetched world, Kyle Funkhouser, a first-round pick in 2015, could be an option later this summer.

As for outside the organization, it's really too early early to tell. Keep an eye on the Blue Jays' bullpen, if Toronto continues to be a disaster.

Jonathan Papelbon's also a free agent, if you want to go that route. Desperate times call for desperate measures — and, man, that'd be desperate.

There's a lot wrong with this question.

For starters, I've had gray hair since I was 16 and have been told I could pass for 50 (I turn 38 on Thursday; Shake Shack gift cards are welcome!). So I'm hardly the person to judge who looks old.

Secondly, the premise of this question also suggests Tigers fans haven't already turned on Ausmus.

And, well, my email strongly suggests otherwise

We get these questions all the time.

And anyone who suggests they know the answer is full of baloney.

All we see on a daily basis is Brad Ausmus' interactions with the media for about 20 minutes before a game, and about 10 minutes after. We also get about an hour to observe the players' clubhouse before the game, and another hour after the game.

Rarely, do we see any locker-room crossover between Ausmus and the players. While we're in there, the players have their space, and Ausmus has his, and it's not often we see Ausmus doing much more in the clubhouse other than patting a player on the back here or there as he strolls through.

All we have to go on is what the players tell us, and no player is going to publicly bash their boss. They're smarter than that.

We can try to get a vibe of things, and sometimes we can. For instance, the locker room seems pretty loose these days. Of course, the Tigers are winning. Late last season, the clubhouse didn't seem very happy at all. Because the Tigers were losing.

If I were to wager a guess, I would suggest Ausmus is mostly well-liked and well-respected, or he wouldn't be the Tigers' manager anymore.

Sharp question, here.

If you would've asked me this last year, I would've said a No. 5 starter, No. 4 at best, and someone who could have a long if not overwhelming career.

But what I've seen from him so far this season has me rethinking that, at least slightly. His performance against the Indians the other day was absolutely spectacular, especially when you consider the talent in that lineup, and the fact Terry Francona ran eight right-handed hitters out there against him. It would've shocked nobody if he got shellacked. Instead, he tossed a masterpiece.

Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris absolutely are the gems among the Tigers' young pitchers. ESPN's Keith Law has told me multiple times that those are two guys you can build a rotation around.

Boyd might be closer to those two than we thought, however, especially give he has mastered the pitch so many pitchers spend their entire career trying to make work — the change-up.

Tigers starter Matthew Boyd deliver a pitch against the Indians.

That's an outstanding pitch for Boyd, and is huge against right-handed hitters.

The key for him is not falling in love with the pitch, as he did at times last year. He overthrew it, and hitters eventually caught on. He's had a much better mix so far this season, and the results say as much.

It probably won't be long until Sanchez is given his outright release — and his $21.8 million golden parachute. The fastball velocity isn't there, and worse, neither is the location. He's given up 63 home runs in his last 64 appearances, since the start of the 2015 season.

The Tigers continue to say, publicly, they believe Sanchez can get out of this funk, and eventually contribute to the roster again.

That's dishonest, but rather total respect to a guy who did a lot for this organization, especially in 2012 and 2013. It also says what the Tigers think of him as a person, and he's a good person — easily one of the top five guys I've come across in the Tigers' clubhouse since over the last 10 years.

But as 12-year-old Twins manager Billy Heywood learned in "Little Big League,"  you can't let your personal feelings impact business decisions. And the truth is, this Tigers' team has a chance to be a serious pennant contender, but the margin for error is slim given the state of the bullpen. You can't risk running him out there in close games, and so if he's only able to pitch when you're down 10 or up 10, it's time for both parties to move on.

As for Doug Fister, who's still a free agent — it ain't happening.

We'll take these questions together, since both are about Justin Upton.

For starters, I think we're being a little harsh about a guy who's rocking an .860 OPS right now. If the season ended today, that'd be the third-highest mark of his career. Also if the season ended today, we'd be in for a darn boring summer.

Upton is streaky. That was his M.O. before he got to Detroit, and he did nothing to diminish that reputation in 2016. The first 4 1/2 months, he was one of the game's most overpaid hitters. The last month-and-a-half, he was one of the game's top five hitters.

So as for whether he'll ever be the player he was in Arizona, that's exactly what Upton is — when he's hot, he's sizzling; when he's cold, he's freezing. There's not a whole lot of in-between there.

As for whether he opts out of his six-year, $132.75 million contract after the season — which is his right — it's pretty simple. If he has a top-five MVP-type season, he'll certainly consider it, believing he could get more than the $22.125 million he's due the next four years. If he has anything less, he stays.

The biggest surprise has to be what the Tigers seem to have in JaCoby Jones. I was against the Cameron Maybin trade, because I don't believe $9 million is too much to pay for a starting center fielder. But Jones' emergence has been impressive, mostly on defense.

He is so graceful out there, and has some of the best range — maybe the best range — the Tigers have seen from a center fielder in the Comerica Park era. That's huge, given the spaciousness of the ground he has to cover, especially with limited-range fells in Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez flanking him.

To think the Tigers only gave up Joakim Soria to get Jones, we could be looking back on that as one of the great heists of Dave Dombrowski era, and as we know, there are many grand heists on that list.

As a 1B to that, Alex Avila's work at the plate has impressed me, not just because he has an early OPS of a million or so, but because the swing looks much more fluid, and he's getting his legs involved. So often late in his first tour of Detroit, he was all arms, a byproduct of those leg injuries. That his legs are really working suggests he's finally healthy, and it might not be long before he's splitting time with James McCann.

The biggest concern, easily, for me has to be Victor Martinez. All players, however good, have an expiration date, and more and more, it feels as if Martinez, 38, is rapidly closing in on his. That's no good, given he's making $36 million between this season and next, obviously way too much for a designated hitter who can't hit like he used to, or, really, anything closed to what he used to.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/tonypaul1984